The 2012 Volkswagen Passat is more than just another Passat, or even yet another midsize sedan in an already vast pool of similar-sized vehicles in North America. No, the innocuous-looking sedan, which went on sale in 2011, reflects a shift in Volkswagen's North American product planning -- and, for that matter, VW's global ambitions.
Though it may share a name and several powertrain options with the Passat built in sold and Europe, the two are surprisingly different vehicles born from markedly different design programs. While Europe receives a Passat that offers fanciful content like adaptive suspension and power-closing trunk lids, America's Passat -- once referred to as the New Midsize Sedan -- focuses more on delivering space at a relative bargain. Not only is the car four inches longer, but selective cost cutting and domestic production (all North American Passats are built in Chattanooga, Tennessee), allows VW to price base 2012 Passats just under the hallowed $20,000 mark.
That may help VW attract the price-conscious buyer, particularly in difficult economic times, but does the penny pinching and increased stature tuning ruin what we've come to love about the Passat over the last three decades? This, after all, is the nameplate that once endeared itself to buyers by way of its European sophistication. The nameplate that once boasted surprising features like a W-8 engine and an evolution of Audi's Quattro all-wheel-drive system. The nameplate VW once touted as "a true German touring sedan with all the feeling and quality you want." Has this flair, this excitement, this European personality all been eschewed in the name of North American sales volumes?
We wanted to find out for ourselves. Though we walked away from our initial test drives reasonably impressed, we decided to put a 2012 Passat through its paces for the next 12 months to see if Volkswagen's latest mainstream hope can also satisfy car enthusiasts like ourselves.
Unlike many other competitors in this market, Volkswagen doesn't sell the 2012 Passat as a hybrid -- those seeking the utmost in fuel economy are instead directed to the tried, tested, and all-too familiar TDI model, which again packs 140-hp, 2.0-liter turbo-diesel I-4 underhood. Seeking a comfortable long-distance cruiser, we elected to go the TDI route, a choice that also impacted some of our subsequent option choices.
While a base 2012 Passat S, fitted with the 2.5-liter I-5, can sticker just below $20,000, the TDI is only available on the higher-grade SE and SEL Premium trim packages, which start at $27,895 and $32,195 respectively. Though we frequently load our test cars to the hilt, we actually shied away from the full-tilt SEL, opting instead for the so-called "Passat SE with sunroof and navigation," which stickers for $30,265, including $770 in destination fees. In addition to the aforementioned features, this package also lumps in 18-inch "Bristol" aluminum wheels. VW offers a six-speed manual on lower-trim Passat TDI SE models, but higher-grade variants -- each involving the addition of a sunroof -- eschew the manual in favor of a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. Perhaps it's just as well, considering we found a conventional manual transmission mated to the same engine in our Four Seasons 2009 Jetta TDI, a little quirky to launch. The only extra-cost item we added to VW's pre-existing package were wheel locks, which added another $110 to our bottom line.
Our 2012 Passat TDI has only been in our garage for a few weeks yet, but with Michigan weather improving and summer lurking just around the corner, we suspect it will quickly become popular with staffers seeking the perfect road trip car, especially given its estimated highway cruising range of 630 miles. Check in shortly to see just where -- and how far -- we push the 2012 Passat in the months to come.